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Improving Degree Completion for 21st Century Students, Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, November 2, 2010, Screen Shot. Donald Earl Collins

I’ve been thinking about the fields in which I’ve worked and sort-have-worked in over the past fourteen years, and I’ve drawn one simple conclusion. For all of the talk of education reform, the talk about reform itself is in need of a reformation. I’m tired of the contrast between the experts in the field — who pay little attention to the cutting-edge trends, research and activism in K-16 education — and the everyday folks. They refuse to do anything except complain about teachers, as if education is as simple as organizing a file cabinet.  The who, what and what for’s regarding education reform has stifled what should be an engaging conversation, one that’s essential in the consideration of America’s twenty-first century ills.

Who’s part of this conversation remains something of an atrocity. Almost all of the experts in education reform — whether on a scholarly panel or in the documentary Waiting for Superman — tend to be Whites (more male than female) over the age of fifty. With more than one in three students in public schools of color — and with tens of thousands of teachers and administrators of color in this school districts — it’s hard to believe that all the experts are White, and most of those are middle-aged to elderly males. Their vision, at best, is a liberalized twentieth-century vision of K-12 and postsecondary education. Most of their proposed solutions — smaller class sizes, more homework, small schools, higher certification standards — will not in any way fundamentally reform K-16 education.

When combined with what’s considered important in education reform these days, it becomes painfully

A Nation At Risk (1983) Book Cover, November 2, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

obvious that the conversations we have on education reform are predetermined ones based on certain interests and short-sighted economic considerations. Most of the money in education reform — whether from the federal government, private foundations or corporate interests — is earmarked for things related to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). No one living in this century would deny the importance of STEM fields to a post-industrial economy. But not to the exclusion of everything else. Science folk and scribes alike still need to know how to write well, to think critically, to act ethically, to extend themselves beyond government and corporate interests.

Thomas Friedman — at least as he wrote in The World Is Flat (2005) — Bill Gates, the Obama Administration are all correct in that STEM fields will provide living wages and supply jobs at a rate over the next generation to replace the easy jobs of the by-gone era of industrial jobs straight out of high school. Yet none of them fully appreciates the connection between education reform, community development, corporate irresponsibility, lobbyists and the swaying of government policies and the politics of race and class in all of this.

STEM fields without a real direction for providing livable communities for the poor and for low-income people of color. Education reform that doesn’t do more than make scientists out of artists. Ideas that don’t account for the long-term issues of climate change and energy and resource depletion. Education policies that contradict themselves in terms of funding and a lack of understanding of what education reform truly

Double the Numbers (2004) Book Cover, November 2, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

means. That’s what we have now, and have had since the 1940s.

In the end, all these ideas are about is tapping the same human resources. The dwindling middle class, folks who’ve managed a traditional education track, folks whose lives are stable enough to allow the resources necessary for higher and advanced education. This need to tweak — instead of overhaul — the educational status quo and then call it reform is what leads to bad conversations. This is why what little in the way of reform actually occurs, and why so few of our kids get the reform they truly deserve.